In the corner of the small living room of the small country house at the end of the dirt road beneath the blue Carolina sky, the dark-skinned five-year-old boy sat with his knees pulled to his chest and his small, dark arms wrapped around his legs and it took all that he had to contain the laughter inside the thrumming cage of his chest.
His mother, seated on the couch with her dark hands folded into her lap and her brow furrowed like Mr. Johnson's fields at the end of winter, pursed her lips and fidgeted with the fabric of the tattered gray dress she wore. It was a dress she'd bought before the boy even came into this world. It aged with him. Year upon year, the blue floral pattern faded, one shade of color at a time. The threads around the hem lost their grip on things. They broke apart and reached their dangling necks in every direction that might take them away. And now, after seven years of hard work, the dress looked as though it would not be able to hold its fraying fabric together much longer.
"Did you find him?" the boy's mother asked as her husband came into the room.
"No," the boy's father said. He was a tall man with large eyes and a long, gangly frame that had earned him the nickname "Skinniest Nigga Breathing" back when he was a boy. The name had stuck over the years, lashed across his back from childhood to manhood, and, having never found a cure for his almost mythological thinness, the man had taken to wearing long-sleeved clothes everywhere he went because the empty air held within the sleeves made him look larger than he was. At least, that was what he believed.
He was a man who had been afraid of the eyes of others for all of his life. How could he not want his child to learn the impossible trick of invisibility?
"It's okay," he said. "We'll find him soon. I know it. I'm sure that, wherever he is, he's fine. He can take care of himself. He's always going to be fine." He took a seat beside his wife on the tired brown couch and wrapped the spindly reeds of his fingers around the fidgeting doves that were her hands. He lifted them to his lips and kissed them. "He's a good kid," the father said. "He wouldn't just up and leave us. We'll find him."
"He's the best boy in the whole world," the mother said.
"Maybe he just went off into the woods to find some briarberries. I bet that's where he went."
"You think so?"
The father thought for a moment. "Not sure, but I'm hopeful, Dollface."
The boy's mother chuckled at "Dollface" and dabbed the corner of her eye. Was she crying?
The groundswell of laughter that had been tickling the boy's throat for so long finally-as he sat, invisible and unseen only an arm's length away-faded at the sight of his mother's tears. His arms tightened around his legs.
He shouldn't have done this. He shouldn't have made them worry like this. They were good parents and they hated worrying about him. A lead ball of regret formed in the boy's stomach. It rang and drummed through his entire body. He needed to stop this trick he was playing on them . . . but how?
What could he do? He was less than two feet from where his parents sat, but guilt over his mother's tears pushed down on the hands that would reach out and touch her and let her know he was there. It weighted down the tongue that would sing her name and free her from fear.
There was no way, his five-year-old mind figured, that he could let them know that it had all been a joke. He could never explain to them that this was all meant to be fun. Not just fun, a celebration! After all, he had done it! For three years now, his mother and father had been trying to teach him to become invisible, to become "The Unseen." That was the name the boy's father gave to it. He said the words with a fantastic tone. He spoke with his hands in the air, sweeping back and forth gently like he was playing some magical instrument. "You will become The Unseen," the boy's father said. He added an almost spooky "Ooooooo" to the end of it sometimes. "You'll be unseen and safe for as long as you live," his father said. ". . . Can you even imagine it?"
It was the words "unseen and safe" that made his father smile. It was the boy's favorite smile, like he was watching his father gain everything he had wanted out of his life.
Unseen and safe.
"What should we do?" his mother asked her husband.
"Should we just call it quits?" replied the boy's father. He put a spindly hand on his forehead and looked very dramatic all of a sudden, the way people in movies sometimes did. And, yet, the boy thought he saw the beginnings of a smile hiding in the shadows of his father's face. "I mean," the boy's father continued, "if he's gone, maybe we should make like a banana and split. We could pack it all up and head out west somewhere. I hear they got tons of kids out there who need a fine set of parents like us."
The boy's mother smiled as though her husband had told a joke. Humor was one of his gifts. His jokes painted the walls of his family's home in brushstrokes of laughter.
But, in spite of the fact that he knew his father was trying to be funny, the boy heard his words and imagined his parents leaving him and, once again, the sea of fear swelled up inside of him.
"No, no, no," said his mother.
And just like that, the fear ebbed.
"You're right," his father said. "We could never leave him. He's just too great. No other kid in this world like him. So what should we do?"
"I have an idea," the boy's mother declared. Excitement filled her voice and spilled over into the boy. His mother always had the best ideas.
"We'll cook everything he likes to eat. All of it. One big meal like they used to do back in the old days. And the smell of it will go out all over the world and find him. That'll bring him home!"
The boy almost cheered. A great dinner of all his favorite things. All of it spread out on the kitchen table, one dish after the other. The idea that the smell of the foods he loved could go out into the world and bring him home . . . it was like something from one of the books he read at bedtime: all myth, and dream, and splendor.
The boy's father leaned back for a moment and looked at the mother through squinted eyes. "His favorite foods?" he said, stroking his dark, narrow chin. "You reckon that'll work?"
"I know it will," his mother said. "He'll smell them. The chicken. The macaroni and cheese. Maybe even a sweet potato pie or two. He never could turn down sweet potato pie."
"Pie you say?" The boy's father licked his lips. "You could be onto something with this scheme of yours. It's got legs, I think. Just like you." He kissed his wife's neck and she laughed the light, lilting laugh that she sometimes did late at night when the two of them were alone in their bedroom with the door locked.
"Stop that," she giggled.
"I don't know," the father said, his mouth a wry grin. "I still think we might could go out west and find a new kid. I hear they make some out there that actually like to eat their vegetables."
The mother laughed and the boy almost laughed too. "No," she chuckled. "We'll cook and he'll come back to us. Just you watch."
She stood then and brushed off her old dress as she always did and she went into the kitchen. For a moment, the father stayed in the living room and stroked his chin again. "Well, kid," he mused, "wherever you are in this world I hope that you know that I would never move out west and try to find another son. You're the only ankle-biter I could ever want."
Then he stood and went into the kitchen and began helping his wife.
Before long, the house billowed with the smells and sounds of the boy's favorite food. The chicken fried in a heavy black skillet and the macaroni bubbled and baked in the oven. There were sugared strawberries, and muscadine grapes, and leftover pound cake that the boy had forgotten was still in the house. Even though he was still hidden, his stomach growled so loudly that he feared it would give him away. But his mother and father didn't seem to hear and so he was able to continue to sit-even with the hunger in the pit of his stomach-and close his eyes and smell all of the dancing aromas.
In that moment, invisible and buried in his parents' love, he was happier than he had ever been. And soon, in spite of his hunger, he was asleep.
He awoke to the feeling of his father lifting him in his arms.
"There you are," his father said.
He carried his son into the dining room, where the table was covered with all of the boy's favorite foods.
"There he is!" the boy's mother screamed at the sight of her son. Then she hugged him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. That was always his favorite type of hug. It was like melting into the summertime earth.
And when the hug was over, his mother kissed him and asked, "Where were you?"
"I did it," the boy exclaimed. "I really did it!"
"Did what?" his father asked.
"I was invisible!"
His parents' eyes went wide as star magnolias.
"No!" his father exclaimed with joy, looking very dramatic like TV people again.
"You really did it?" his mother asked, equally elated.
"Yep," the boy chirped, almost laughing. "I was in the living room this whole time. Unseen just like you said. It really worked, Mama!"
Then his mother hugged him and the three of them danced and laughed and smiled like they never had before. In that moment, the worries that had always hung over their heads were suddenly gone. It was as though all three of them might suddenly levitate off of the floor, float up into the blue sky that sprawled itself out long and wide above the small country house that the family called home.
The next day, the boy, still drunk on sweets and wonder, asked his father: "You really couldn't see me, could you?"
"It doesn't matter if I saw you or not," his father said. "All that matters is that you felt safe."
The thing to remember is this: above all else, this is a love story. Don't ever forget that.
But now that that's out of the way, let's get acquainted:
It's 3 a.m.
It's 3 a.m. and I'm somewhere in the Midwest-one of those flat states where everyone seems nicer than they should be. I'm in a hotel. In the hallway. I'm running. No, actually, I'm sprinting. I'm sprinting down this midwestern hotel hallway. Did I mention that I'm naked? Because I am.
Also: I'm being chased.
About fifteen feet behind me-also sprinting, but not naked-is a very large man wielding a very large wooden coat hanger. Sometimes he holds it like a baton. Other times he holds it above his head like a battle-axe. He's surprisingly fast for a man his size.
The very large man with the very large coat hanger is draped in Old Navy couture: beige straight-fit stain-resistant khakis, argyle sweater vest, brown twill boat shoes that may or may not be faux leather. He's a family man for sure. 2.3 kids. Dog named Max. Cat named Princess. Aquarium that's on its twelfth goldfish named "Lucky." He drives a Camry and lives on a cul-de-sac in a home surrounded by a picket fence. There's an in-ground pool in the backyard. He's got a healthy 401(k).
He's everything a responsible adult should be.
He looks to be about the same age as I am-leaving the decadent comfort of thirty and reluctantly knocking on the grizzled front door of forty. And for an instant, as the two of us sprint down this luxurious hotel hallway-feet thumping on the carpet, lungs burning, arms pumping like oil wells-I think about stopping and asking him how he built that life. How he made it all come together so perfectly. How he managed to do everything I've been unable to. I want to hear his secret.
But as I take a look back over my shoulder, I see him raise that coat hanger of his into a battle-axe position and shout, "My wife! That's my wife! We made babies together!"
No. This won't be the day I find out the secret of people like him. All I can do now is try to stay ahead of that coat hanger. So I put my head down and try to remember what my high school track coach told me: "High knees. High head. High speed."